Religion and Israeli Democracy: Towards a New Synthesis

Categories: Israel

Democracy seems to be the foreign-policy catchword of this generation. For more than a decade, American grand strategy has largely revolved around a desire to spread democratic institutions worldwide. Sometimes this has taken the form of peaceful engagement, such as Anthony Lake?s policy of enlargement under President Clinton. But at other times, and most recently in Iraq, it has been an aim used to justify warmaking. In this, Israel is no exception. Israeli right-wing parliamentarians from Netanyahu to Sharansky ? witness the latter?s recent tome that has found its way into the Bush White House ? have justified Israeli realpolitik based on a lack of democracy in the Arab World. And with Israel being a Jewish state, religion has existed uneasily alongside democracy as central fulcrums on which Israeli political identity has both rested and wrestled. Much has been written on the topic of religion and democracy in the sense of specific religious tenets and their relationship to democratic functioning, particularly in the Islamic world. Yet with religion becoming increasingly popular in the political realm across the globe, we need to continue to think about the general spirit of religion and what it says about the prospects for fair and equal politics. Today in Israel, democracy appears to be sorely threatened, if not always in letter, then in spirit. And this threat has arguably arisen in no small part from religious nationalists, the bedfellows of the right-wing which has, paradoxically, long used democracy as a tool to justify a push for Greater Israel.

Consider the following:

1. Expansionist Zionism, embodied by the settler movement, continues to oppose the right of the Palestinian people to climb out from under Israeli occupation and exercise their own democratic functioning in the form of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

2. The religious Zionist movement has threatened to block IDF attempts ? scheduled for later this summer ? to disengage from Gaza.

3. Fringe religious elements are speaking of Ariel Sharon as a traitor, again eliciting fears that violent acts against the prime minister could be committed in the name of religious Zionism.

Yet religion ? and spirituality more broadly defined ? has also been used by more progressive elements within the community of Israel-supporters, and somewhat within Israel itself. The writings and teachings of Rabbi Michael Lerner, head of the California-based Tikkun community, are a case in point. His self-described spiritual vision leads him to oppose the Israeli occupation in favor of a two-state solution and to decry the demonization of the Other (read the Arabs) that is currently taking place in the name of Judaism. Other groups within Israel, such as Oz VeShalom-Netivot Shalom, and Meimad, hold similar religious-democratic agendas.

So the fact that Judaism has given rise to multiple spiritual conceptions and differing foreign-policy visions leads us to ask whether religion is, in fact, helpful for democracy, or would we do better to leave it out of politics altogether?

One answer to this quandary suggests two defining issues: inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, and spiritualism rather than materialism. That is, we need to ask whether the espoused religious outlook is fundamentally one of inclusion (of disparate members of society, of other members of the international community) or exclusion (including conferral of fifth-column status on devalued citizens, and propagation of enemy-imaging towards other states)? And is it truly one of spiritualism (the belief that self-actualization can come from things beyond the self and the material) or of materialism (most pressingly in this case through the relationship to land)? That is, is (as much) land (as possible) to be possessed as an aim unto itself, even at the risk of pursuing policies of demonization and exclusion as well as potential loss of life?

Democracy, as a political system, is premised on the idea of equality, and by extension, inclusiveness. And true spirituality, one might argue, is based on a rejection of materialism for materialism?s sake. Yet it is precisely the opposite orientation we are seeing take hold in Israel among the critical mass of the religious Zionist movement, though its members probably would not term it as such. The attachment to land at all costs ? specifically in Gaza and the West Bank, areas which most reasoned observers have come to surmise must form the contours of any incipient Palestinian state ? has come to define the movement. This trend ? though it is by no means a recent phenomenon in contemporary Israel ? helps to buttress the secular nationalist-right-wing which has long used democracy as a catchword to push for policies of aggression, expansion and racism. The settler child in the award-winning 2001 documentary Promises exemplifies this outlook when he jokes that it wouldn?t be a bad thing if the nearby soldiers missed their targets at their firing range, since a stray bullet might just kill an Arab.

So all this suggests that what is needed in Israel, if that country?s citizens are serious about maintaining the democratic character of the state, is either new spiritual leaders who will promote the proper aims of democracy, or else a serious move to force religion to be checked at the door of Israeli statecraft. But despite the aims of modern Zionism to refashion world Jewry into a nation more than simply a religion, it is the religious aspect of Jewish identity that is becoming increasingly salient within contemporary Israeli political conversation. This trend is mirrored by global events worldwide: religion is increasingly becoming a defining feature of politics in many states across the globe. As long as a discourse of God exists in the world ? and there are no signs of that abating ? Judaism ? as a (if not the) defining aspect of Israeli statehood will remain strong. This leaves us with but one alternative: a search for new spiritual voices within the Jewish state that will promote the true aims of religiously-inspired democracy: spiritualism and inclusiveness.

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